Drafting the Empire

- By Jeff Morgan

Not since January 2003, when US House of Representatives member Charles Rangel introduced a bill calling to reinstate the military draft, has the issue of conscription been more talked about than now. Rangel ostensibly proposed the bill in large part to address the problems of the economic draft, in which, due to disparities in income, social position, and educational opportunities, members of the all-volunteer US military are disproportionately working class, African-American, and Latino.1 Unsurprisingly, few politicians supported Rangel's proposal and the debate soon died down.

But on April 20 of this year Republican Senator Chuck Hagel once again brought the issue of the draft back into mainstream political debate. While Hagel also cited the socioeconomic imbalance of volunteer forces, he emphasized the deteriorating course of the occupation in Iraq. He stated that the growing crisis "is a steam engine coming right down the track at us" unless the US government acts to do something about it.2 As lawmakers like Hagel know, the endless "war on terrorism" promises continued occupations, interventions, and, hence, resistance by those occupied. This will undoubtedly require more troops - or at least a constant number - and if problems of retention and recruitment manifest themselves, the issue of a new draft will be more than speculation or hollow warnings.

Imperial Overstretch

The US imperial state currently has over 700 bases in more than 130 countries world-wide. In addition, since the end of the Cold War military planners have set out to "streamline" their forces, developing a smaller, quicker, and more hi-tech fighting force. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been one of the strongest proponents of such a technological "transformation" in military structuring, and has pushed that strategy further than anyone before him. Largely reflective of Rumsfeld's philosophy, the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) states that the strategic focus for any major military operation "will be on the ability to act quickly when challenged and to win decisively at a time and place and in the manner of the President's choosing." "U.S. forces," the report continues, "will be capable of decisively defeating an adversary in one of the two theaters in which U.S. forces are conducting major combat operations by imposing America's will and removing any future threat it could pose. This capability will include the ability to occupy territory or set the conditions for a regime change if so directed." 3

Of course, "occupying territory" is precisely what the US military is doing right now in Iraq. But little is said in the QDR about long-term occupations and operations, instead focusing on "streamlining" defense policy, following a "business model," and achieving "quick-strike" capabilities and "decisive" results. Such a force had little problem with the "regime change" aspect of the QDR strategy in Iraq, defeating an ill-equipped army in the "conventional" sense. But US imperial designs in the region require a long-term presence, and the all-volunteer armed forces, with their limited size, must continue to impose "America's will" as the demands for empire grow. If the situation continues as it has - with increased resistance to the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and more overseas adventures - the US military will face a crisis in capabilities, rooted in a dwindling supply of needed troops. This is one aspect of "imperial overstretch."

In 1997 historian Paul Kennedy defined imperial overstretch as the condition when a country's "global interests and obligations" become "far too large for the country to be able to defend them all simultaneously."4 This clearly reflects the trajectory of the US Empire. Increasing demand may soon outpace supply in terms of personnel strength, leaving Washington with fewer and fewer options to address the crisis.

Facing the Crisis

So far planners in Washington have attempted a number of strategies to deal with these problems. Reservist and National Guard troops already account for nearly 37% of the total combat personnel in Iraq. According to a plan announced in November 2003, overall forces were to be reduced from 130,000 to 105,000 while Guard and Reserve strength would be increased from 28,700 to 39,000 of that total number.5 But the growing insurgency against the American occupiers, and the refusal by many US-trained Iraqi soldiers to lend support to the American military against mounting rebellions, has forced the Pentagon to cancel the planned troop reduction. This means many soldiers' tours will be extended even further than already expected. Also, according to the New York Times, US Gen. John P. Abizaid, citing even more anticipated increases in violence, said that "he was likely to ask for another extension in the current troop levels in Iraq, now [as of April 23, 2004] at 135,000, and might even ask for more troops beyond that." 6

In such a situation, reenlistment concerns come to the fore. According to a poll conducted by the Army this spring - even before the extensions - 52% of soldiers stationed in Iraq said their morale was low, whereas 70% felt fellow their troops suffered from "low" or "very low" morale. 7 As well, this deteriorating state of affairs can be registered on the home front among soldiers' family members. One poll performed by the Washington Post, Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University revealed a full 50% of military families felt retention of soldiers currently serving will prove a "major" problem, another 26% called it a "minor" one, while only 21% felt it would not be a problem. 8 Considering these families will exert a significant influence upon whether individuals reenlist or not - not to mention that they probably reflect the views of the soldiers themselves - the Pentagon will likely experience considerable problems meeting needed retention rates.

Obviously in response to the reality of the situation, the Army has promised up to a $10,000 reenlistment bonus to soldiers, regardless of their rank or level of expertise. But it has yet to be seen how effective such a plan will prove to be. According to an Associated Press report, many soldiers interviewed unsurprisingly sneered at the bribe, recognizing there are more things in life than money - like life itself. One soldier stated, "I don't want to be in the Army forever and just keep fighting wars." 9 How common a sentiment this actually is cannot fully be determined, but it's hard to see the bonus as anything other than a temporary solution to a much deeper systemic problem.

Rumsfeld gave his main line of reasoning: "What we're trying to do is to manage the force now so that we don't have a falloff in recruitment or retention a year from now, and then have a gap where we have to scramble to rectify that."10 But unless any major unforeseen change in events takes place that would end the Iraqi resistance, low morale will continue to be a growing problem, regardless of reenlistments taking place now. The end result would be that the dangers will sooner or later outweigh the benefits, eventually forcing the Defense Department "to scramble to rectify" the situation.

And scrambling they seem to be. The Pentagon is now admitting it will likely have to break its own deployment guidelines, which state troops must have at least a year to recover before being redeployed after combat duty.11

In an effort to maintain and increase troop numbers, the US Army has also instituted "stop-loss" orders. These orders have affected over 40,000 troops, postponing retirements and other expected departures from combat zones. This endeavor has increased the number of active-duty soldiers by 20,000 over the 480,000 limit set by Congress.12 According to US Army Public Affairs, the program is "based on the commitment to pursue the Global War On Terrorism for the immediate future, to provide our combatant commanders the force to decisively defeat those that threaten our security, and to ensure our unit formations are ready, cohesive and at their best to effect forthcoming rotational plans."13

This program clearly demonstrates the problems of imperial overstretch. US "global interests" have exceeded the country's ability - in terms of military personnel - to "defend them all simultaneously," and the "Global War On Terrorism" has forced authorities to address the growing contradiction between needs and capacity. As well, the need "to decisively defeat" the enemies of empire harkens back to Rumsfeld's philosophy reflected in the Quadrennial Defense Review, only this time reality has forced an increase in troop numbers instead of the "streamlined" approach. Lt. Gen. Ron Helmly, head of the Army Reserve, candidly explained the situation facing Washington: "I believe the news has accurately reported that planning for postwar operations in Iraq did not recognize the full potential for the violence, instability and insecurity that has occurred. So now we're engaged in something that we didn't expect."14

In Search of Allies

As resistance in Iraq continues to grow, Washington has recently sought the aid of the UN to help address the crisis. However, despite calls for a new resolution its role will largely be a political one, limited to developing a "genuine" Iraqi government for the US to control. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did acknowledge that "there are quite a few countries who aren't going to come in until it's safer to come in." 15 This has been compounded by the fact that other states already providing military support might soon follow the lead of Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic and withdrawal their troops.

Non-US forces currently account for 24,000 of the total stationed in Iraq. Poland, with 2,500 troops in the country, has recently hinted at the possibility of limiting its contribution. And Norway will hold firm on its commitment to withdrawal in June, despite pleas from the US State Department. 16

Other nations also eye June 30, the date for the ostensible "turnover" of power to the Iraqis. If violence continues to escalate, as Gen. Abizaid believes, pressure to withdraw will undoubtedly grow once the handover takes place. However, the US relies less militarily on contributing countries than politically. Foreign participation adds to the coalitional veneer Washington needs in its attempts to legitimize the occupation. But if more nations pull out and refuse to back the US through "legitimate" channels like the UN, resistance will grow as a result. Iraqis would be even more justified in seeing this, rightly, as an imperial conquest by the most powerful nation on earth.

Will the Occupation End?

An obvious solution to the crisis raising the possibility of a renewed draft would be that US forces simply withdrawal. But is this going to happen? Apparently not. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently admitted that the US presence in Iraq will probably be "decades." 17 Such an assessment, considering the problems already present only a year into the occupation, reinforces the possibility of conscription at some point in the not-too-distant future. Compounding the problem, as the Washington Post reports, is the fact that "the transitional government would have limited powers, with no authority to write new laws and no control over U.S. military forces that would continue to operate in Iraq." 18 A sovereignty like this will only make blatant Washington's true designs in the region and do little to limit the insurgency.

In an April 10 radio address discussing America's role after the June handover, President Bush made clear that "the coalition's commitment to Iraq will continue," and its "forces will remain committed to the security of Iraq." 19 Yet the obvious fact of the matter is that any current insecurity in the country is directly related to the US presence.

And if you think the Democrats will solve the problem if elected, think again. Both George Bush and the Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry are fully committed to the Iraq occupation. Kerry, despite his attempts to distinguish himself from the more "hawkish" president, has called for additional troops to crush the rebellion, a strategy that will only serve to inflame the Iraqi population further. Speaking April 18 on Meet the Press about the US mission in Iraq Kerry said, "I believe the following very deeply. Number one, we cannot fail. I've said that many times. And if it requires more troops in order to create the stability that eliminates the chaos, that can provide the groundwork for other countries, that's what you have to do." 20

Both Kerry and Bush sufficiently support ruling class interests, and the only divergence on the issue of controlling Middle Eastern resources is a matter of tactics, not goals. Kerry hopes to drape US designs in an international fašade. This would ultimately be an attempt to legitimize US actions in Iraq, while doing little to help the situation. Basically it is a question of who will best serve to maintain the empire, not who will dismantle it.

What about Conscription?

On September 23, 2003, the Department of Defense placed a notice on its Defend America website requesting volunteers for local draft boards. It stated as follows: "If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men, who submit a claim, receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service, based on Federal guidelines." 21 It was pulled from the site soon after receiving some media coverage and never became an issue in the US mainstream. But the appeal for volunteers shows planners in Washington are at least contemplating the possibility of a draft. With the conditions in Iraq far worse than they were when the notice appeared, we can only speculate about the contingencies being worked out right now in Washington.

Obviously many conditions will determine whether US authorities will ultimately begin drafting American citizens. Will reenlistment rates fall? Will the Iraqi resistance continue to grow? Can the US government maintain even a semblance of an alliance in the long-term? Will the interests of US empire outweigh the actual political costs of starting a draft?

It's unlikely all these questions will be answered before the November elections, and maybe not until some time after that. But they are undoubtedly on the minds of government officials. It is impossible to hide the fact that forces are stretched thin, that the burdens of empire might prove too heavy unless drastic actions are taken.

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By Jeff Morgan, student and antiwar activist in Athens, GA, can be reached here: morganj@uga.edu


1. "Draft Bill Stirs Debate Over The Military, Race and Equity," Washington Post, February 4, 2003.
2. "Hagel Seeking Broad Debate on Draft Issue," Washington Post, April 22, 2004.
3. U.S. Department of Defense, "Quadrennial Defense Review Report," September 20, 2001, p. 21.
4. "The relative decline of America," The Atlantic, August, 1997
5. "Rumsfeld: 85,000 slated for Iraq troop rotation," USA Today, November 5, 2003.
6. "General Says He May Ask for More Troops," New York Times, April 23, 2004.
7. "In Army Survey, Troops in Iraq Report Low Morale," Washington Post, March 26, 2004.
8. "Army Spouses Expect Reenlistment Problems," Washington Post, March 28, 2004.
9. "U.S. soldiers balk at staying another year in Iraq for $10,000 bonus," Associated Press, January 8, 2004.
10. Ibid.
11. "Increase in troops for Iraq stretches US army," Financial Times (London), April 24, 2004.
12. "Army Stops Many Soldiers From Quitting," Washington Post, December 29, 2003.
13."Army Announces Implementation of the Active Army Unit Stop Loss/Stop Movement Program," US Army News Release, November 17, 2003.
14. "Major restructuring planned as concerns about turnover rise," Dallas Morning News, April 21, 2004.
15. "Wolfowitz: U.N. Effort Won't Yield Troops," Associated Press, April 20, 2004.
16. "Poland Mulls Iraq Exit Options," Reuters, April 21, 2004; "Norway rejects U.S. plea to stay in Iraq," Reuters, April 23, 2004.
17. "Joint Chiefs Chairman: War Going Well," Associated Press, April 23, 2004.
18."U.N. Iraq Resolution A Tough Sell," Washington Post, April 26, 2004.
19. "President Bush Discusses Iraq in Saturday Morning Radio Address," April 10, 2004, available online at www.whitehouse.gov/
20.Meet the Press, April 18, 2004, transcript available online at http://msnbc.msn.com/ID/4772030/
21.The notice is no longer on the Defend America website, but a mirror, as well as links to the articles that broke the story, is available online at http://www.thememoryhole.org/mil/draft-boards.htm

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